Giants of West Tennessee: Jesse Hill Ford, part 1

NOTE: This is an occasional series about notable figures from my home region. These are personal reminiscences and opinions; where available, I’ll include links so interested readers can find out more.

As I’ve mentioned before, I grew up in a tiny West Tennessee town that has no school, no library, no newspaper, three churches, is a notorious speed trap and is just generally the kind of place I’d recommend most folks avoid.

What is unusual is that, five miles away, there once lived an actual honest-to-God bestselling author.

Jesse Hill Ford’s biggest success, The Liberation of Lord Byron Jones, came out in 1965. It dealt with a black undertaker in a small Southern town seeking to divorce his wife, who’s had an affair with a white policeman. The undertaker’s threat to name the policeman in the divorce action starts a chain reaction that leads to several deaths and the moral destruction of just about everyone else. It was a thorough indictment of small-town racism that spared no one.

This was Ford’s second novel, and with it he became the toast of Humboldt, TN, the inspiration for the book’s fictional Somerton. Folks in Humboldt who previously called him “weird” for both being a writer and mooching off his wife’s family now sang his praises.

In 1970 a very faithful movie version was released. Those who’d switched from badmouthing Ford to sucking up to him, all without actually reading his book, now saw just how he depicted them. The irony that the book had been available for five years, but no one in Humboldt bothered to read it, was lost in their belated outrage.

(A clip from The Liberation of L.B. Jones with Lola Falana and Anthony Zerbe)

But that irony was nothing compared to what happened next. In 1971 a black soldier parked in Ford’s rural driveway, thinking it was a safe place to make out with his date. Ford fired a rifle shot that killed him; he claimed it was accidental, but the local district attorney, seeing a chance to avenge Ford’s depiction of Humboldt, charged him with first degree murder. He was acquitted, but it took all his profits from the success of his novel to get him off, and cost him his standing as a liberal. And he never wrote another novel.

Instead, he began playing the role of the Faulkneresque author without actually writing anything. He divorced his first wife, who stood by him during all his troubles, and married a wealthy woman with mental issues. He taught writing seminars and wrote reactionary opinion pieces for USA Today. And finally, right after his Collected Letters were published in 1996, he committed suicide.

Here’s a brief documentary about Ford:

Next month in part 2, I’ll explain my personal connection to Ford and how he shaped some of my deepest writing convictions.

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